Why Doesn't HR Lead Change?

Add bookmark

Brad Power

It’s hard to find leaders of the Human Resources function who are active in helping their organization improve the way they work. I asked dozens of people who are in HR or in process improvement to share examples of HR change leaders, and I only found a few.

Here’s an example of a story of what is possible, but rare: In 2009 Tony Scibelli, Vice President of Human Resources and Operations at Faxton-St. Luke’s Healthcare, learned that the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Nursing Officer were going to launch "relationship-based care", a comprehensive cultural change program that was going to focus doctors’ and nurses’ attention on patients and their families. He offered to have HR involved to address the people side. He showed them how HR could weave relationship-based care and continuous improvement into the fabric of this community hospital in central New York, for example by hiring the right people and promoting the right people. Then he was at the table with them as they planned training and communication, and how to reward people who took on improvement projects.

When I talk with leaders of process improvement activities about the role of HR in change, I generally hear that HR is administrative in its orientation, bureaucratic, and a brake on innovation. Others say that HR is under-utilized. In most organizations talent management is left up to direct supervisors.

Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan and recognized as the most influential person in Human Resources, has identified three human resource processes that are critical for embedding a culture such as continuous improvement: (1) talent flow, (2) rewards, and (3) training and development. Each of these processes presents challenges to HR in leading change.

Including Change in Talent Flow Decisions

Hiring and promoting people who embody an organization’s desired mindset and behaviors—and removing those who don’t—sends messages to those who are not hired, promoted, or removed. They see what is happening and adapt their behaviors accordingly. The problem for continuous improvement is that managers are notorious for hiring only subject matter experts in a particular discipline, not for behaviors, such as improvement. For example, Scott Beaird, director of Talent Management at Tufts Medical Center told me, "We hire what the manager wants. We hire a financial analyst, who is great at working with dollars. We don’t typically challenge managers to look more broadly. We introduced HR business partners twelve months ago and asked them to get out and advocate for HR policies. They struggled. They kept getting mired down in minute details, e.g., writing a requisition for a new job."

Including Change in Rewards

Reward systems both change and reinforce behavior. The goal of a reward system is to turn goals into measures of behavior and outcomes, then allocate rewards based on the extent to which employees behave in the right way and deliver the desired outcomes. Sustaining improvement activities demands that people not only execute their job, but improve their work. HR people typically don’t have the operational experience, expectation, or permission to engage line managers in changing rewards to encourage operational improvement. For example, Scott Beaird told me he sees that his hospital needs to reward process improvement due to the impending changes of healthcare reform, but he can’t initiate them from his position; changes to rewards need to come from senior leaders.

Including Change in Training and Development

Designing and delivering training courses sends messages about what matters. At the same time, it offers leaders skills and tools to act on those messages. An audit of the content of training and development experiences should show that these investments focus on improving work. Few HR organizations are going to promote improvement training unless it’s driven by senior leadership, even though they may see it is what the organization needs.

So what are the root causes of the difficulty of HR leading change? I see two:

A Support Relationship: As described above at Faxton-St. Luke’s, HR must be at the table with senior leaders to weave improvement into HR processes. Before HR can offer advice to the organization, they need to be a partner – not support. The CEO and executive team often view HR in a supporting role.

Being Inbred: HR hires HR experience. HR historically has been mainly engaged in personnel and compliance and transactions. HR professionals who don’t have operational experience have less credibility and won’t be comfortable in engaging in operational advice.

Question: Have you seen HR lead change? We welcome your comments below.